Saturday, 22 April 2017

Three quick thoughts
from Chelsea 4-2 Tottenham in the
FA Cup semifinals at Wembley on
Saturday.

1. Hazard makes the difference
for Chelsea

Antonio Conte's gamble to leave
Eden Hazard and Diego Costa on
the bench paid off as Chelsea beat
Tottenham 4-2 in a compelling FA
Cup semifinal.
Hazard came off the bench with
half an hour to go, and his
compelling cameo changed the
game. He scored the goal that sent
Chelsea in front for the third time
and then set up Nemanja Matic to
score the fourth.
Chelsea go into next month's FA
Cup final with a chance to win the
Double. Hazard and Costa will also
be relatively fresh for their team's
Premier League match against
Southampton on Tuesday, where a
victory would bring the title a step
closer.
Willian gave Conte's team the lead
twice in the first half. Harry Kane
and Dele Alli both leveled with
brilliant goals, but Hazard had the
last word.
Chelsea started well. Nathan Ake, in
for Gary Cahill, made a strong
challenge on Kane in the fourth
minute, and the Blues broke at
pace. Pedro stormed clear and was
almost in shooting position when
Toby Alderweireld slid across and
scythed the Spaniard down. The
Spurs centre-half was shown a
yellow card, but further
punishment awaited Tottenham.
Willian curled the ball over the wall
and into the far corner of Hugo
Lloris' goal. The goalkeeper was
unexpectedly slow into his dive and
perhaps should have done better.
Chelsea's pace troubled Tottenham.
Pedro and Willian were eager to run
with the ball at defenders and
Michy Batshuayi's movement
presented a different set of
problems for the centre-backs than
they were expecting to encounter
with Costa. The 23-year-old does
not have Costa's power, though.
The Belgian should have doubled
the score just before the quarter
hour, but his unopposed header
was weak, and Lloris saved easily
this time.
Chelsea were left to rue the miss
three minutes later when
Tottenham forced a corner. David
Luiz headed the set piece clear, but
all 11 Chelsea players were deep in
the penalty area. They were too
deep. Spurs were allowed to work
the ball out wide on the right, and
Christian Eriksen was given time to
fire in a cross. It was not the best
effort by the Dane, but Kane dived
low and glanced the ball into the far
corner. It was a magnificent,
unstoppable piece of improvisation
from an expert goal scorer.
But just as Spurs were beginning to
dominate, Son Heung-Min -- playing
wing-back -- made a huge mistake.
Victor Moses charged into the area
and Son slid across to try to
intercept the ball. Moses saw him
coming and waited for Son to miss
the ball before dragging his legs to
let the Tottenham player make
contact. Moses could have easily
avoided going down, but the chance
to be awarded a penalty was too
good to miss. Martin Atkinson, the
referee, took a long look at the
incident, checked with his assistant
and pointed to the spot. Tottenham
protested, but Willian expertly sent
Lloris the wrong way to put Chelsea
back into the lead.
Alli had struggled to make an
impact in the first half, but he
sprung to life in six minutes into
the second period, powering down
the inside left channel and flicking
the ball into the net from Eriksen's
fine pass. The goal showed all the
midfielder's attributes: power,
anticipation and a deadly finish.
Shortly afterwards, just on the
hour, came the inevitable double
substitution. Hazard and Costa
arrived. The game changed in an
instant.
Tottenham continued to swarm
forward and were looking the likely
winners, but Hazard was always
going to have the last word. The
Belgian was lurking on the edge of
the area for a rare Chelsea corner
and was in the perfect position
when a headed clearance dropped
out of the air. Hazard took one
exquisite touch that set up the ball
perfectly and then rifled his shot
into the far corner. Conte's team
were in front with one injection of
class.
Matic made it safe for Chelsea with
10 minutes remaining with a
splendid shot from 25 yards after
Hazard teed him up. The Belgian
went on a mazy run inside the box
before rolling the ball to the
midfielder, whose shot gave Lloris
no chance and made sure Chelsea
reached the final.
Hazard made all the difference.

2. Conte gamble pays off as
Willian strikes

Conte took a huge gamble and it
looked for a long time like it had
gone awry. Batshuayi led the line in
Costa's absence with Willian
operating in the areas the Belgian
usually patrols.
It was not quite a makeshift
Chelsea side, but it was some way
from Conte's strongest XI. Against
the team who have emerged as
Chelsea's only serious challengers
in the Premier League, it was a bold
move.
There has been rumbling
discontent with Costa's attitude
behind the scenes since interest in
a move to China emerged in
January. It was hardly a surprise
that the striker had fallen out with
his manager. Even so, if omitting
Hazard was Conte's attempt to
prioritise the league, it could have
had dangerous consequences.
Defeat to Spurs, who are despised
at Stamford Bridge, would linger
longer in the supporters' memories
than even winning the title.
Batshuayi is some way from the
finished article. Apart from the first-
half header he wasted, he had little
impact on the game. He worked
hard but offered little else. It was a
matter of time before Costa
replaced him.
Willian was different. His quickness
off the mark and tendency to run
into dangerous areas made him
one of Chelsea's better performers.
It was a surprise when he was
withdrawn for Hazard. The Brazilian
went straight down the tunnel and
may have picked up a knock. The
man who bailed his manager out,
though, was Hazard. His influence
changed the match completely.
Conte will think twice about leaving
him out again.

3. Spurs' Wembley woe

Playing at Wembley has been
problematic for Spurs. They lost two
out of three Champions League
group games, winning only the
meaningless match against CSKA
Moscow, and drew their Europa
League game against Gent.
Mauricio Pochettino's side are
expected to use the stadium as
their home ground in next year's
Premier League, and an inability to
win games at the venue would
bring the progression of
Tottenham's young team to a
juddering halt.
Losing another game here when
they were on top for so long will
have a serious impact on their
confidence for next season.
Their tendency to lose discipline
was highlighted by Son's wild
sliding challenge that gave away the
penalty. Pochettino seemed to
accept that the Son experiment had
failed when he replaced him with
Kyle Walker after 67 minutes.
With Hazard on the pitch it made
sense to shore up the right-back
position with Kieran Trippier
switching to the left. At the time of
the switch, Spurs were still on top
but in a matter of minutes they fell
apart.
Once Hazard put Chelsea in front,
Tottenham's Wembley demons
seemed to reappear. Pochettino
has all summer to fix things, but the
team's performances in this
stadium do not bode well for next
season.
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